Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Vegetarians Who Turned Into Butchers

At Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver, Kate Kavanaugh trimmed the sinew from a deep-red hunk of beef the size of a bed pillow.

“Flatiron steak is the second-most tender muscle in a steer’s body,” she said, focused on her knife work. “This guy sits on the scapula, and I love it because it has beautiful lacy fat.”

After the meat was cut down into several smaller steaks, she wrapped one up, grabbed a couple of tallow cubes molded into the shapes of “Star Wars” characters, and headed to a nearby kitchen to cook us some lunch.

Before she was a butcher, Ms. Kavanaugh was a strict vegetarian. She stopped eating meat for more than a decade, she said, out of a deep love for animal life and respect for the environment.

ImageCreditRyan Dearth for The New York Times

She became a butcher for exactly the same reasons.

Ms. Kavanaugh, 30, is one in a small but successful cadre of like-minded former vegetarians and vegans who became butchers in hopes of revolutionizing the current food system in the United States. Referring to themselves as ethical butchers, they have opened shops that offer meat from animals bred on grassland and pasture, with animal well-being, environmental conservation and less wasteful whole-animal butchery as their primary goals.

It’s a sharp contrast to the industrial-scale factory farming that produces most of the nation’s meat, and that has come under investigation and criticism for its waste, overuse of antibiotics, and inhumane, hazardous conditions for the animals. The outcry has been so strong that some meat producers say they are changing their practices. But these newer butchers contend that the industry is proceeding too slowly, with a lack of transparency that doesn’t inspire trust.

ImageCreditRyan Dearth for The New York Times

“I’m basically in this to turn the conventional meat industry on its head,” she said, as Darth Vader melted in her hot cast-iron pan.

Once the tallow was liquid, she added the steak, letting the meat sizzle as she hummed “The Imperial March.” She left it in the pan a lot longer than I was expecting; like many of her ex-vegetarian customers, Ms. Kavanaugh prefers her steaks cooked to medium.

It was one of the best steaks I’d ever had, which is saying a lot: I like my meat black-and-blue. Crisp-edged, velvety and still remarkably juicy, it had a mineral tang and funky brawniness that would make its blander, cornfed cousins taste like chicken in comparison.

The ethical butchery movement first gained traction about 15 years ago, in the wake of the journalist Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the abuse of factory-farmed beef cattle, and his subsequent book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2006.

One of the central questions in the book is whether Mr. Pollan can bring himself to kill an animal — first some chickens, then a wild pig — for his own dinner.

“It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, which I was then and still am,” he wrote, “that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat eating depends.”

This challenge struck a chord with many people, including vegans and vegetarians looking to change the factory-farming system.

ImageCreditBenjamin Norman for The New York Times

For Janice Schindler, 28, who was a vegan for five years and is now the general manager of the Meat Hook butcher shop in Brooklyn, the animal in question was a turkey at a “Kill Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner” event at a local farm.

“It was really morbid. I was the only one who signed up,” she said. “I’d never killed anything before. Turkeys are such large animals. But when you put them in a poultry cone upside down, they completely relax. Then you can cut an artery. It stuns them and they bleed. I spent the rest of the day working the eviscerating station. It was super-gross, but I found it fascinating.”

That experience was the gateway to her training as a butcher, which she began immediately afterward.

Ms. Schindler’s transformation from vegan to ethical butcher was similar to that of several butchers I spoke with. Hers began in high school: As a member of the National FFA Organization (better known as the Future Farmers of America) in Lucerne Valley, Calif., she was charged with caring for a baby lamb as it grew from a tiny ball of fleece to a bleating, prancing adolescent.

“Nothing prepared me for the emotional earthquake of selling that lamb for meat,” she said. “His name was Frederick.”

That was the first identity crisis, she said, that led her to become a vegan. Her second came in college, when she returned to eating meat after learning that the soybean and corn monocultures that accounted for much of her vegan diet were wreaking havoc on the environment.

“I felt I was being lied to as a consumer every time I’d go into Trader Joe’s and see a fake farm on the package of a G.M.O. soy burger,” she said. “I knew it was up to me to find an alternative food system.”

ImageCreditCoral Von Zumwalt for The New York Times

The system that she, Ms. Kavanaugh and many other of these butchers embrace is rooted in grassland ranching, in which grazing animals play an integral role in sustainability. They do so by providing manure for fertilizer, which encourages the growth of a diversity of grasses, and by lightly tilling the soil with their hooves, which allows rainwater to reach the roots.

The system’s advocates say it can regenerate vast swaths of grassland, which has the potential to sequester carbon rather than emitting it as factory farm operations do. (Critics of the alternative approach say that not all studies show improved carbon sequestration on grazed grassland, and that the system can’t produce enough meat to meet current demand.)

“I grew up hiking the prairies of Colorado, and I developed a really deep love for those plains,” Ms. Kavanaugh said. “It’s like people say when they talk about loving the ocean, that you can see for miles under a big blue sky. When I decided to open a butcher shop, I knew I only wanted to source 100-percent-grass-fed animals from ranches that were helping regenerate the prairies.”

Raising grazing animals on grassland, however, is significantly more expensive than raising steers on feedlots, making the meat more costly for consumers. Ms. Kavanaugh, for example, charges $21 a pound for top sirloin steak, as compared with $8.99 at a nearby King Soopers supermarket.

When Joshua Applestone, 49, opened Fleisher’s Grass Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, N.Y., in 2004, he was a fourth-generation butcher and first-generation former vegetarian. By opening Fleisher’s — one of the first ethical butcheries in the United States — he sought to make this type of meat more available.

“When we first opened, people were surprised at the prices,” he said. “But our costs are much higher than what a giant company pays. We are paying to have control over the quality of our animals, what they are being fed, how they are being treated, transported, slaughtered and cut up. Once people understood that, the business took off.”

In order to exert this kind of control, butchers like Mr. Applestone cultivate close relationships with local ranches and farms that they periodically visit. This intimate connection helps inspire trust among their customers, and creates a transparency lacking in factory farming.

Mr. Applestone has since sold Fleisher’s (which has become Fleishers Craft Butchery) and opened the Applestone Meat Company, a 24-hour butcher shop with locations in Stone Ridge and Hudson, N.Y., that uses refrigerated vending machines to bring prices down and further increase accessibility.

“My customers tend to eat less meat than average Americans,” he said, “and I always make sure to keep less expensive cuts in stock so there’s always something under $10 per pound that they can buy. It might not be the beef filet, but I sell my boneless, skinless chicken breasts for $9.99 a pound, and that’s what everyone wants.”

ImageCreditBrown Cannon

As Anya Fernald, one of the founders of Belcampo Meat Company, put it: “Cheap meat isn’t a win. I want people to spend the same amount on meat as they do now, and buy better meat, but less of it.”

Ms. Fernald, 44, became a vegetarian as a teenager, on the day she learned that it can take as much as 12 pounds of grain to yield one pound of beef. “The underlying fallacy here is that cows don’t have to eat grain,” she said. “They have five stomachs evolved to eat grass.”

After spending her high school and college years subsisting on a vegetarian diet of flavored yogurt, Gardenburgers, pizza pockets and mac and cheese with frozen vegetables mixed in, she began eating meat again in Europe, where she worked on farms for a few years.

“As soon as I started eating meat, my health improved,” she said. “My mental acuity stepped up, I lost weight, my acne cleared up, my hair got better. I felt like a fog lifted.” All of the meat was from healthy, grass-fed animals reared on the farms where she worked.

Other former vegetarians reported that they, too, felt better after introducing grass-fed meat into their diets: Ms. Kavanaugh said eating meat again helped with her depression. Mr. Applestone said he felt far more energetic.

“It can be hard to balance your diet as a vegetarian, especially when you’re younger, and I wasn’t doing it right,” he said.

Grass-fed and -finished meat has been shown to be more healthful to humans than that from animals fed on soy and corn, containing higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, beta carotene and other nutrients. Cows that are fed predominantly grass and forage also have better health themselves, requiring less use of antibiotics.

“There’s one health for animals and humans,” Ms. Fernald said. “You can’t be healthy unless the animals you eat are healthy,”

There’s another benefit to grass-fed and -pastured meat: It can be absolutely delicious, as that steak in Denver reminded me.

Mr. Applestone vividly remembers that first bacon sandwich (made with pasture-raised pork) in his post-vegetarian life, served on a soft Martin’s potato roll: “I thought it was the greatest thing that ever hit my mouth.”

ImageCreditCoral Von Zumwalt for The New York TimesImageCreditCoral Von Zumwalt for The New York Times

Jered Standing, 40, who owns Standing’s Butchery in Los Angeles, never stopped longing for meat during the five years he was a vegetarian. He eschewed meat after working as a conventional butcher in a supermarket right out of college.

“I was really turned off by what I saw,” he said. Even so, he couldn’t quite get grilled steaks and browned sausages off his mind.

After reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he decided to give ethical butchery a shot, first getting a job at a Whole Foods Market, and then with Ms. Fernald at Belcampo, before opening his own place.

“Being a vegetarian was always a struggle,” he said. “I never thought there was anything wrong with eating meat. I just didn’t want to support the meat industry.”

And selling meat from alternative sources is a way to protest factory farming of animals without having to abstain from eating meat. “Rather than being passive and just not supporting an industry I don’t like, I’m taking an active approach by taking thousands of dollars out of it, “ he said. “When people come to me, they aren’t going to Costco for meat.”

Even so, he has witnessed what he calls a “vegan backlash,” including vitriolic comments on his Instagram feed, and a protest in front of his shop.

“I have a business based on the fact that I’m sad about the way animals are being treated,” he said.

Other butchers said they have been similarly criticized.

ImageCreditIan C. Bates for The New York Times

“Since I became a butcher I’ve been called some horrible things on the internet, and it doesn’t seem right,” said Lauren Garaventa, a co-owner of the Ruby Brink butcher shop and restaurant on Vashon Island, Wash., and a former vegetarian and animal-rights activist. “There’s a larger problem here: the problem with concentrated feedlots, and with animals being commodities. That’s what we should be attacking, not each other. ”

But they see their work as Mr. Standing does: a stand against an industry whose practices they abhor.

“I opted out in the only way that I could, by rejecting meat,” Ms. Fernald said. “Now Belcampo is how I opt out. I can do it by changing the system. And I see both stages in my life as totally consistent.”

Recipe: Bavette Steak With Tahini-Vegetable Salad

CookingBavette Steak With Tahini-Vegetable SaladAug 6, 2019

Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *